Saturday, June 3, 2017

A Horrible Day and Acts of Loving Kindness




One year ago today...


We set up in site number 6 at Limpopo River Camp, the same site we camped at 10 months earlier. As before, we had the entire place to ourselves. Scott slung the hammock and settled in with Tony Park’s latest novel. I prepared a cold pasta lunch and bathed under the open-air shower. 
As I showered I watched the Limpopo River move slowly and thickly passed Scott in the hammock. I spotted a small pod of hippos to the left, and a solitary Kingfisher gliding just inches above the water. I thought of Eve Jackson’s words of wisdom.  I may never have this view again, so I lingered, trying to etch every frame to my memory.
After toweling off and dressing, I began to prepare the Landy for storage. “Why are you doing that now?” Scott asked somewhat irritably from the hammock. We still had several weeks together before I left Africa, and Scott would be with Ndoto for another month after. 
“Dunno. Just feel like it.” 
 As I went through every inch of the Landy—the library, the pantry, our clothes bins, the secret places, and the super secret places that we keep spare cash, credit cards and passports—I began collecting all the important documents, portable hard drives, laptops, wallets… all the valuable stuff, and I put it all in one sack and place it inside my clothes bin. Scott, absorbed in Tony’s book, didn’t notice my somewhat irrational behavior. He wouldn’t have understood. I didn’t understand. But, like an expectant mother who compulsively nests, or like a Boy Scout who wants to be prepared, I couldn’t stop myself. 
Later, when the sun dipped low in the sky, I made burritos and served them on candlelit table, with goblets of wine and a vase of wild flowers. It had been a perfect day in the African Bush. Standing back, I took in the entire scene—the Limpopo, Ndoto, Scott, and the campfire. “I’m going to miss this.” I announced.
“What? Cooking over a propane stove?” Scott asked with a contented smile.
“No. Well, yes. I mean, I’m going to miss this lifestyle. This Africa. This time in our lives.” We went to bed feeling peaceful.

In the middle of the night we heard splashing and trumpeting. We looked through the tent screen to see a herd of elephants frolicking in the river. We unzipped the fly and hung our heads and arms out in the moonlit African night to soak up and enjoy one of the most beautiful bush scenes imaginable. Babies and juveniles ran back and forth in the water playing, dunking, and charging while adults stood and drank before doing the same. Such joy!
“Why do the most perfect things always happen just as I am about to leave the Africa?” I whispered.
“Of course they do. You should stay,” said Scott quietly before rolling over and falling asleep. But as was the case most nights lately, sleep didn’t come easily to me.  
In just two weeks, I would be returning home while Scott stayed on in South Africa for a month to do a wildlife course. I lay awake, realizing that soon we would be apart for an entire month. As part of “our story” it didn’t feel right. For 40 years we have done most every adventurous thing together. We sailed our 40’ catamaran named Different Drummer across the Pacific Ocean to Hawaii. We trekked in the Himalayas. We transited Africa from Casablanca to Cape Town by public transportation. We rafted the Grand Canyon and walked the Camino de Santiago.  That we would now be apart felt like a disturbance in the Force. I knew that if I had said out loud, “I want you to come home with me,” he would have. But as much as I wanted him at my side, I also wanted him to fulfill his dreams. Still I was losing sleep over it.
At dawn I crept down the ladder and put the pot on for coffee. While I waited for the kettle to come to a boil, I walked slowly around camp identifying the spoor of animals that had walked through—hyena, genet, and civet. I love mornings anywhere in the world. I like the peace and promise of a new day. But mornings in Africa are the best. At home in California we read the paper over coffee every morning. It's a ritual. In Africa the ritual is slightly different. We read the "bush news" with our coffee. We examine the spoor that surrounds Ndoto and tell each other the story of what visited in the night. We recover the trail camera that has been tied to a nearby tree for the night and thrill in the images of elephants and hyena, porcupine and civet that walked just feet from the base of our tent ladder. Sometimes, there are copious amounts of fresh elephant dung and spoor of all sorts around camp in the morning, which makes the sometimes 200-foot walk to the toilets an eyes-wide, butt-clenching, quick march experience. It’s exhilarating. We are alone with pure nature. It is why we come to Africa. 
That morning, as so often happens when I am in Africa, feelings of gratitude and contentment washed over me. I am exactly where I want to be doing exactly what I want to do with the only person I can imagine wanting to do it with.
I chose some logs and started a small fire to take the chill off the morning. I sat with my feet up on the concrete fire ring feeling tranquil and content. After half an hour, I heard Scott, still cozy in bed, stretch and yawn. When he joined me at the fire pit he opened his iPad and read an email from Anthony (Ant), a pilot in South Africa, introducing himself. The email went on to say, ..." so if Scott wants to see the plane, he should come tomorrow to have a look." Ant was temporarily storing a plane in his hangar for a conservation team in Tanzania that would be using it for anti-poaching surveillance. Scott had some interest in volunteering his services as a pilot, but wanted to see the plane before committing.
“That’s great!” I said before taking a sip of coffee. “Timing is everything. If we weren’t able to see the plane tomorrow, we wouldn’t be able to see it unless we went all the way back to Tanzania. Not sure Ndoto is up for that. Now you can see if it is the type of plane you feel comfortable flying before committing to conservation flying. And the town of Louis Trichardt is on our way to Kruger where we planned on going anyway.” 
I sat in silence enjoying the dawn chorus of birds announcing their territories. Warm rays of a rising sun beam worked like a spotlight on a kingfisher, that hovered and dove into the river. “Hey! He got a fish!”
“I’ve been thinking,” Scott started. “You might need help driving to Susanville to pick up Pika." Pika is our cat who was being lovingly cared for by my best friend Bonnie while we were away. Scott continued, "It’s a 7 hour drive and you’ll be jet lagged.” He paused and stared for a moment into the fire. “It feels like there is too much going on. I think I should go home when you do.”
I felt a great weight lift from my shoulders. “Oh Scott. Just to hear you say that makes me happy. You must have been feeling the same as me about being apart. It just doesn’t seem right, does it?” It was my turn to stare into the fire. “But let’s talk about it after we see the plane in Louis Trichardt. I’m just happy that we are both unhappy about you staying while I go.” I looked up and saw that he understood what I meant. 
The following morning, after we crossed the border into South Africa and drove to Louis Trichardt, I was far from happy and content. I was anxious. Ant wouldn’t be available to show the plane until 5PM, the exact time in Africa at that time of year when day turns to night. We try not to drive anywhere at night in Africa. Visibility isn’t great, so chances of hitting a pothole, or worse, an animal or child are big concerns. And, having a mechanical breakdown in the dark is so much more anxiety producing than when it happens in the full light of day.
We arrived in Louis Trichardt and drove straight to the campground in town only to find that it was closed. “Let’s just lift the boom and camp here anyway,” I said. “We won’t get back from the hangar until well after dark and I don’t want to drive aimlessly around looking for another place to camp. We can stay here and leave for Kruger at first light, okay? Let’s check it out.” I started to get out of the car to lift the boom when the camp attendant showed up. He explained that the grounds were closed because of an international bike race happening the next day and that camping there would not be possible, which made no sense to us at all. “There is a hotel just across the street. Perhaps you can stay there.” Scott walked over and inquired at the hotel. Not only were they fully booked, they assured Scott that every hotel room in town, and in all the surrounding towns, were taken by the more than 15,000 bicycle racers in town. We were due at the hangar in 30 minutes and my unease was mounting by the second. Not knowing where we would stay that night we drove out to see the plane.
Ant had told us that the hangar was difficult to find and he wasn’t kidding. After following our GPS to a dead end, getting briefly stuck in a quagmire of deep mud, and being told by a pedestrian whom we asked for directions, “Oh my, you are lost,” we finally arrived at the airfield past our appointed time, and well past dark. On the way, I announced to Scott, “After you look at the plane I am going to ask Anthony if we can pitch up in, or outside, his hangar. The airfield security guard can let us out in the morning. Then we’ll be off to Kruger by the crack of dawn.” Scott, intent on missing a pothole, but not missing a turn, said nothing.
When we arrived late at the hangar Ant was understandably perturbed at our tardiness. But he is South African so his manners were impeccable. He welcomed us and opened the hangar door. Off to the right sat the small anti-poaching plane, a Sky Jeep. But dominating the space was a Polish Wilga, which to my eye, is the most romantic looking bush plan ever made.
“That’s a Wilga! Where did you get it? How long have you had her?” Scott exuded enthusiasm, admiration, and envy all at once as he circled the plane. He impulsively reached out to stroke the fuselage.
As with anyone who is met with an appreciative audience, Ant happily talked about his Wilga. How a lady pilot had flown it there from Poland, how much he loved to fly her, and how much his wife did not enjoying flying in her. 
Scott and Ant eventually made their way over to the Sky Jeep, the reason why we were there. The plane looked in fine shape, ready to help save rhino and elephants from being poached in Tanzania. As they plane talked, Ant and Scott lost track of time, but I didn’t. It was getting darker by the minute.
“Ant," I interrupted, "it has been so kind of you to take the time to show Scott the Sky Jeep. I have one more favor to ask. All the accommodation in town is booked, and the campsite is closed because of the bike race. May we pitch up outside your hangar for the night? We would leave for Kruger first thing in the morning.”
“No. You are staying at my house,” he said without hesitation.
I was floored. “But why,” I asked? “You just met us.”
“Because you are. Now get in your Landy and follow me.”
We did as we were told. We followed Ant through the township surrounding the airfield and up into the suburbs in the hills above the city. It was the first of many times over the next 16 hours that I was to ask, “why?” 
Seven enthusiastic dogs of varying sizes and three cats, along with Ant’s wife Norma, greeted us in the small foyer. He must have phoned her on the way.
“You are welcome," she said indicating a room to her left. "This will be your accommodation for the night. You must be desperate for showers. Take your time then meet us in the lounge for drinks. And of course, you will join us for dinner.”
“But why?” I asked peering into a beautifully appointed bedroom with en suite off the entryway. “You don’t even know us.”
“Nonsense. Freshen up and we’ll see you soon for drinks, all right?”
“All right!” After bush camping for three nights no one needed showers more than we.
Soon we were gathered in the lounge with Norma, Ant, their son and his new bride, and a 9 months pregnant Veterinarian staying in a guest house on the property. All the dogs and one cat crowded in on sofas and laps around us. I loved everything about this house and these people. It had an air of You Can’t Take it with You the 1938 movie with Lionel Barrymore and Jimmy Stewart. It was a house filled with love and acceptance and stick togetherness.
Over drinks we found we had friends and acquaintances in common. We were enthralled by Ant and Norma’s stories of Zimbabwe and of how they met. It was as if we had known each other for decades rather than for a few minutes. None of the talk was small. They told us about their children and about how they had never had a honeymoon.  We talked about our families, about how lucky we were to have so many wonderful nieces and nephews since we were unlucky to have kids of our own. I told them about Clare and Colin, the youngest of the batch from my siblings and how we were the ones who got to teach them to ski, to backpack, and how to poo in the woods. I talked about how homesick I was and how anxious I was to see them. Recently, I told them, I had received a note from Colin saying he couldn’t wait until I got home.  I smiled remembering how much fun we had with Clare and Colin growing up and I talked about what wonderful people they had had become, Clare a comedian and writer in New York and Colin studying to be a firefighter. Times spent with my nieces and nephews, especially Clare and Colin, are some of the happiest of my life.
“Scott and I travel a lot. We’ve been away from home longer than this before, but this time, it feels I’ve been away forever. I feel such a strong tug for home. Being here with your family, all the laughter, the warm fire, reminds me again of what I am missing. I’m really looking forward to being home in a few weeks.” While we talked, Ant’s son Benjie worked the grill and before long we were gathered around a table in the kitchen enjoying meats, and salads, and wine aplenty. No one grills like a South African male. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water.
It was getting late. Ant had an early morning meeting and we wanted to be off to Kruger Park at sun up. “Of course, you will have breakfast with us before you all leave,” Norma said.
“But why? Really you mustn’t go to the trouble.”
“Nonsense. Ant must eat and run early too so it is no trouble at all,” Norma said. I was falling in love with this family.
Scott and I retired to our quarters for the night feeling cared for and loved.
“Why?” I asked as we climbed into bed. “Why are they so kind? We are total strangers. Or were. I can’t believe the stuff we talked about. Personal stuff you usually save for the fifth date, you know?”
“They are just good people Tris. We would have done the same if we encountered a stinky couple without accommodation for the night.” He leaned over and kissed me. “Sleep tight.”
But I didn’t sleep tight. I tossed and turned. Even though we were safe and sound for the night, the anxiety I had felt since yesterday when I was going through the Land Rover had not left me. I was up and ready to go by 6AM. 
We ate with Ant and Norma, promised to stay in touch, and drove off down the hill. As we rounded the first bend I took out my phone to check for messages. What I saw made my heart skip a beat. There were messages from my niece Clare and from my brother Sean. I read the messages to Scott. They just said URENT. “Pull over, Scott.” I said.  Scott parked off the road and grabbed his iPad saying, “I’ll connect with Skype so you can talk to Sean and Clare.”
I tried calling Sean but my call went to message. I called Clare and that call went to message too. Thinking the worst, I began doing an online search for the closest airport. We had never been to Louie Trichardt before so for all we knew we would need to drive all the way to Johannesburg to catch a flight. Then my phone rang.
“Auntie Teresa,” said Clare tightly.
"Clare, what's wrong? What has happened?"
“Auntie Teresa," she repeated. "Colin died.”
“WHAT?!” Colin was my brother Sean’s only child. I screamed. I wailed. Our anguished sobs carried across oceans and continents. I kept screaming, "No, no, no, no…”
“It can’t be. Oh my God. Sean and Ann. How will they survive?" I thought of Colin's beloved girlfriend Selina and felt overwhelming sadness for what might have been. Between our sobs, Clare just kept repeating over and over “I know. I know.” I could hear the pain in her voice. Both only children and a year apart in age, Clare and Colin grew up like siblings. Scott told me later that he had never seen anyone tremble as I was trembling. “How?” I wailed into the phone.
“No one knows yet. But Uncle Sean was the one who found him.”
“Oh my God,” I cried. “Clare, I’m coming home. Now. I’m coming Clare.”
I reached for Scott then looked past him to see Norma pulled alongside in her car, concern and confusion written on her face.
“I heard such screaming so I came to see who it was. But, it’s you. What has happened?”
I was still shaking. Scott was speechless and as white as a sheet. Finally, I managed to expel answers. “It’s my nephew. The one I told you about. Colin.”
She understood. For the third time since I met her just 12 hours earlier, Norma took charge and told us what to do. “Go back to the house. Park your Landy in the driveway. I will see to it that you get to an airport. You mustn’t worry about anything.” She repeated everything three times.
Back at Ant and Norma’s house Scott climbed up on the roof of the Landy and retrieved our backpacks out of the small storage bin. He tossed them down and I began throwing things inside. We didn’t speak. We just did. And I didn’t have to think. All I had to do was pick up the sack I had filled the day before with all our important stuff and put it in the backpack. I remember thinking; this is why I did this. Norma stood by saying, “Don’t worry about forgetting something. You don’t need it.” Then, “ Now, you mustn’t worry about your Landy. Just park it over there and don’t think about it. Go in the house. Scott, you can use my computer to book a flight. You must both drink the tea I give you. There is not a bit of color in either of your faces.”
We followed her inside like Zombies. I reached the bathroom just in time, as my guts and bowels gave way.
Norma gave us hot sweet tea. And pink grapefruit juice, also thick with sugar. I later learned these are good for shock. She stood by and let me talk about Colin, what an amazing young man he had become, what a wonderful girlfriend he had. About what a wonderful father he would have been.
“Why?” I sobbed. Then, “And why are you doing all this for us?”
“This is what we do. You would do the same for me.”
Within 15 minutes of hearing the news, we were on our way to an airport 100 kilometers away in Polokwane. There, we boarded a ten-seater bound for Johannesburg. All I remember of the flight was Scott repeatedly leaning across the aisle and squeezing my leg.
In the car on the way to the Polokwane airport Scott booked the last two seats on a flight to Abu Dabai. Or maybe it was Dubai.
On the departure board in Johannesburg I had noticed that there was a flight leaving for Dubai in ten minutes. I begged the powers that be to hold the plane for us but they said it was impossible. So we had to wait several hours for our connecting flight. At the gate Scott explained to the ground staff that we were returning home due to a tragic loss of a family member and they found a way to have us sit together. Thank God. I don’t remember a thing from that 10-hour flight. We landed in Abu Dabai and waited again for a connection. It’s a blur. The 17-hours of flights to San Francisco, I don’t remember being on a plane. Then it was an hour by car to San Jose.
The 40-hours from the time I got the news until I was in my brother’s arms was a new kind of agony I never want to relive. I only remember two things from it—feeling like my body was turning inside out, and Scott's hand squeezing my leg.
I knew then the answer to the question I kept repeating to Ant and Norma, Why?
If it hadn’t been for our chance meeting and how they insisted we stay with them and enfolded us into their family, I don’t know what would have happened. Norma knew just what to do to keep us from driving away distraught and without a plan. She took charge because she knew we couldn't think clearly. She ordered us back to the house and treated us for shock. She offered phone and computer so Scott could try to book flights. She repeated everything three times because she knew we couldn't comprehend words.
I no longer believe in coincidences. I believe in serendipity and love. Something told me to prepare for a disaster the day before. Then there was the bike race and lack of hotel rooms, the Sky Jeep in Ant’s hangar, and Ant’s love of Land Rovers. Ant insisting we stay at his house. Norma’s warmth, the dogs, the cats, the love, all of it was set in place for us so that we could survive in order to help others survive.
Once home, we stayed in our niece’s cottage until our tenants moved out. She again fed us fresh baked bread, calm love, and compassion. My best friend drove 7 hours to deliver our cat Pika to us, “Because,” she said,  “you will need her.” And we did. Our tenants moved out two weeks after we arrived which was a good thing because the memorial for my nephew Colin was three days later at our home. I don't know how we did it. Yes, I do. People exactly like Ant and Norma stepped up without question. They arranged the best caterer in Silicon Valley on short notice. A friend of my sister-in-law flew across the country and arranged all the flowers. The day of the event, neighbors appeared in the morning to set up all the chairs and tables, donated wine, and enveloped us in regular doses of hugs. There were over 400 people in attendance. Speeches were so heartfelt, those present, even those who had never met Colin, said that the day “transformed” them. When hearing that he had died instantly, of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, an enlarged heart, many people uttered sadly, “Of course he did” because no one had a bigger heart than Colin.
Just two weeks before he passed, Colin had completed his training along with extensive physical tests and interviews to become a firefighter, his dream career. He was still awaiting the news if he would be offered a position when he passed away. We found out the night before the memorial that he had achieved his goal. A fire Captain read the acceptance letter and presented Colin's helmet, jacket, and badge to My brother and his wife at the memorial. It was the most proud and the most sad I have ever seen my brother. Throughout the service Scott squeezed my leg.


2 comments:

  1. Hi Teresa, I am so sorry for your loss. I raced through the blog the first time to find out what happened. The second time I read slower, allowing the words to be absorbed and the resulting emotions to wash over me. You are a great writer. Thank you for sharing your experiences, even the sad ones.

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  2. Teresa, I'm so sorry for you loss, also. Just started reading your blog and some of your amazing stories. And bought your book. Looking forward to hearing all about your adventures! Hope you got home safely and all is well after your journeys this fall. Hello to Scott! xoxo Carla and Steve

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